If, as the cliché has it, truth is the first casualty of war, then nuanced commentary often follows close behind. Sometimes it comes in the form of inappropriate historical analogies – when US troops are involved, the tendency is to mine the Vietnam war and to talk modern-day quagmires and Tet offensives; Rudyard Kipling is the lazy trope when the coverage centres on British forces in Afghanistan. Sometimes it comes from bold, declarative statements that are headline-grabbing but inexact.
The false notion, following the announcement of Australia's accelerated withdrawal timetable from Afghanistan, that 'nothing has been achieved', is a case in point.
On ABC Four Corners on Monday night, retired General John Cantwell questioned whether the Australian mission in Afghanistan had been worth the loss of lives. His comments found an echo from retired Major General Alan Stretton, who asked rhetorically, 'What has been achieved?' Not much, if anything at all, he surmised. But before these comments ossify into conventional wisdom, there is another story to consider.
I should start by pointing out that, ever since my first visits to the country, two years after the attacks of 9/11, I have treated with scepticism bold claims regarding Afghan progress. Vivid still is the memory of reporting on the Loya Jirga in 2003, when Hamid Karzai got things off to an upbeat start by performing ribbon-cutting duties at the opening of a new section of the Kabul to Kandahar highway. Though the newly-laid bitumen was cited as a landmark to progress, Karzai, like all the other VIPs, had to be helicoptered in because the road was deemed too dangerous to travel.
Likewise, I recall being told by a senior US commander that the first presidential election in 2004 had brought about 'the psychological defeat of the Taliban', a boast that sounded far-fetched then and ridiculous now.
However, I also spent enough time in Afghanistan to be struck by the difference between days when the country led the global bulletins, when the news was almost universally violent and bleak, and the weeks when it failed to stir much interest in international newsrooms. These were periods of quiet progress that failed to attract much coverage.
They were days when we filmed new schools being built, new medical facilities coming on line, mine fields being cleared and poppy eradication teams at work. Or, as was the case in Khost near the border with Pakistan, pupils learning geometry in classrooms that had once served as a training centre for Al Qaeda. These were the true markers of progress.
In 2003, there were 450 health facilities in Afghanistan. Now there are more than 1800. Over the past decade some 20,000 community health workers have been trained. It helps explains why the life expectancy has leapt from 47-50 to 62-64, and why, according to the latest figures from UNICEF, infant mortality has been cut in half. Women are more likely now to survive pregnancy. Afghan girls have the chance of an education. Three million are now in school, compared with two million three years ago. As Ian Livingstone and Michael O'Hanlon observed in the New York Times at the weekend: 'Afghans are wealthier, healthier and better educated than ever before.' They also have a menu of basic civil rights forcefully denied them under the Taliban.
The question of whether they are safer is more vexed. Although Kabul is still the target of headline-catching attacks, as was the case earlier this week, it now accounts for less than 1% of violence nationwide, as O'Hanlon and Livingstone point out. The fact that Afghan forces took the lead in repelling the latest attack is also a positive sign. That would have seemed inconceivable eight years ago, when watching new recruits being put through their paces was often inadvertently comic. In 2009, just 5 Afghan battalions were wholly or partly self-sufficient. Now the number is 137.
The security situation is still unsatisfactory, woefully so in the east. The number of Afghan civilian deaths has risen from 400 in 2009 to 500 in 2012. Because of infiltration from the Taliban, the number of foreign troops killed by Afghan forces has risen, too, from two in 2009 to 15 last year. A lone actor, like the American sergeant who massacred 17 Afghan civilians in March, can destroy years of confidence-building in one homicidal moment. The quality of Afghan Government, nationally and provincially, will long be a problem.
Needless to say, the mission also has been bedeviled by mistakes, from Donald Rumsfeld's initial obstinacy about restricting ISAF troops to Kabul — for years, Karzai's nickname, the 'Mayor of Kabul', tidily captured his powerlessness — to the diversion of military, intelligence and reconstruction resources to Iraq.
So the picture is mixed, but not unremittingly miserable. And often lost in the debate about whether Australia and NATO have achieved their strategic objectives, which can often be overly academic and abstract, is the human dimension. It is essential to bear in mind the lives improved as well as the lives lost.
It is not for me to say whether Australia's sacrifice has been worth it or not. But just as I have long been wary of anyone promising a definitive victory in Afghanistan, I am equally sceptical of those who argue that nothing has been achieved.
Photo by Flickr user isafmedia.